‘Unrequited’ author on writing about obsession, love and heartbreak

“Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse, 1903

Lisa Phillips is an author who teaches journalism at SUNY New Paltz, following a career as a public radio journalist, contributing stories to a number of outlets including NPR.

You’ve gained a reputation for writing about love. How did that happen?

Getting an essay published in The New York Times “Modern Love” column in 2006 got the ball rolling. And writing “Unrequited: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Romantic Obsession” definitely solidified this identity. Once the book came out, I had a lot of requests for shorter magazine, newspaper and online pieces about love and romantic rejection.

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I joke to my students at SUNY New Paltz that my beat is “love and heartbreak,” but not in the glossy, Cosmo way (though I have been published in Cosmo). I work in a wonkier, more in-depth, cerebral fashion. Psychology Today is one of my favorite places to write for, because it’s very readable and very grounded in psychology research.

What was the first thing you wrote about love? How did that differ from writing in love?

The aforementioned Modern Love column, aptly named: “I couldn’t let go of him: Did it make me a stalker?” It told of my experience falling in love with a man who was seeing someone else. He had feelings for me, but he refused to get involved with me. And I got obsessed, and that led me to chase him in a too dramatic and too aggressive way — nothing bunny-boiler level, but still not okay behavior.

Obviously that’s not something I could ever write while in love! Rejection and yearning, as awful as they are, can be inspiring — you’ve got to do something to fill that space. In my book I discuss research that shows that feeling socially rejected can spur creativity. Also what happens in our brain when we seek creative satisfaction is somewhat similar to what happens when we seek satisfaction in love.

How hard is this topic, from both the subjective and objective perspectives?

I think that love is very interdisciplinary. We have a lot to learn about it from so many sources. So this is a challenge.

I do frequently blend the personal and the reportorial. That means the goal is different. For example, in my book I make one of the biggest journalistic faux-pas imaginable — I cover unrequited love from a zillion angles, but I don’t get “the other side of the story.” Which in my case is the perspective of the man who rejected me. I made a conscious decision to substitute another value for the traditional reportorial idea of balance. The more important value was sending the message that the answers in unrequited love and the resolution to an obsession can’t be found in the person who’s rejecting you.

What are the audiences you imagine writing for?

Self-reflective, seeking, usually but not always female. Much of my work, and certainly my book, won’t really make much sense unless you’ve had some taste of obsessive love/unrequited love at some point in your life.

How vast a subject is love; and how narrow? Are their better terms one can use, other avenues and subjects better explored?

It’s endless, of course! I think that love will always be the home base word, but other words can really bring you into it in a much different way. I wrote a cover story for Psychology Today (on the newsstands now!) on intimacy that was fascinating to research and report. I’d never thought about the definition of intimacy, weirdly — or maybe not so weirdly. Intimacy is the opposite of what you are dealing with in unrequited love. So writing about that gave me a chance to consider what humans do to grow close, to feel known and understood. And that put love in a whole new light.

What did you learn from reading about love?

I do read a lot of novels about love. Are there novels that aren’t about love? I think of the last two novels I read. “Fates and Furies” by Lauren Groff suggested that enduring, passionate love can thrive on a foundation of lies — a rather transgressive theme. “Swing Time” by Zadie Smith had a central character who seemed immune to love, except when it came to an obsessive childhood friendship. I am still struggling with this character — I so badly wanted her to be more loving and more vulnerable.

Then there’s all the research reading — that’s a safer and more straightforward kind of learning, and I enjoy it, but novels are still what rocks my world the most.

As the mother of a teen girl, what would you write to her that she would read? What do you wish she could write to you?

Yikes. Five more months until she’s a teen, actually! I can’t answer that question because the very vague next book project I have in mind addresses just that…shhh.

And for the second part of the question, just the whole idea that she would write something for me sounds incredibly wonderful. But it’s not something you demand — it would have to happen in its own time and way.

No matter what, she is already an expressive (though not in a gushy way) kid, and I’m very grateful for our conversations. I love to talk to her about people and friendships and all the social challenges of being a middle schooler.

What have you learned from writing about love and what do you sense you have yet to learn, or will simply never understand?

I don’t think I will ever fully understand the coexistence of the persistence of the drive to love and the persistence of the human capacity to hurt. I think that writing about a subject can be transformative, but not necessarily in all the ways we hope.

I am being purposefully enigmatic here.

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